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Falcons reportedly shifting game-management role to Will Harriger for 2020 season

The Falcons love to make moves quietly, but this one sneaks up on us more than most.

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Game-Atlanta Falcons vs Denver Broncos Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If not for today’s report from Jason Butt, we might have never realized that Bob Sutton is no longer the game management coach for the Falcons. The veteran defensive coach was hired last year to take on an assistant role on that side of the ball and to aid Dan Quinn with the kinds of situations he is routinely criticized for, like when to call timeouts, when to go for it on fourth down, and so on.

I don’t think I gave Sutton’s role a ton of thought during a year where more frustrating, visible issues were playing out, but the team has quietly shifted him out of that role and toward an unspecified job that focuses purely on the defense. The role of game management coordinator (or whatever specific title the team is employing) now goes to Will Harriger, who was an offensive assistant and then assistant quarterbacks coach in Seattle from 2014-2018. Harriger joined the Falcons as an assistant on offense a year ago and apparently worked with Sutton in a game management capacity, though what that role involved is not exactly clear.

The upshot is that Harriger has the job by himself, a sign that he did some things the team liked. Sutton either wanted to shift responsibilities with the team or wasn’t viewed as the right fit after 2019 any longer.

Per Dan Quinn, via Butt’s piece:

“I was very impressed by Will early,” Quinn said. “He’s had background on offense, background on defense. From Florida to Seattle, we’ve always stayed connected. He was somebody who I thought was really qualified for that. He had plenty of experience in the quarterback room from his time in Seattle, so it seemed like a good fit for us to do that.”

As Butt notes, Harriger will be in charge of situations like two minute drills, timeouts, and challenges. As Butt also notes, Harriger’s split role with Sutton was not shared by the team until right now, which matches the weird opacity the organization had throughout the season with things like “Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris are suddenly calling defensive plays, but it’s been happening for weeks.” It appears he had a significant hand in game management, however.

How did the Sutton and Harriger duo fare last year? This is a bit hard to parse—and figuring out who to credit/blame is impossible without further color from the team—but let’s give it our best shot.

2 minute drills

The Falcons ran 52 plays last year when either leading or trailing with less than minutes to go in a game, which isn’t every two minute drill they ran but does account for a meaningful chunk of them.

In total, the Falcons ran the ball 9 times for 5 yards in those situations, which means they would have literally been better off doing anything but that. They fared better passing, going 27 for 38 for 277 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.

If we expand this out to 4 minute drills and try to account for the same situations, the Falcons ran the ball 21 times for 45 yards (yuck) and went 69 of 89 for 699 yards, 9 touchdowns, and just 1 interception alongside 8 sacks through the air.

A lot of this is on Dirk Koetter’s play-calling and execution by the players, but it appears at a remove that Sutton and Harriger did a good enough job managing the team’s time and tendencies in these situations that they were able to be very successful through the air when time was a factor late in games. The less said about the team running the ball in those situations, the better, however.

Timeouts

Getting meaningful timeout statistics for the Falcons is a bit futile, it seems, so it’s hard to deliver any definitive judgements here. My only lasting memory of timeouts from a year ago comes from the Colts game, where the team frittered away two timeouts in the first half because of defensive confusion and played some of the weirdest-paced football you could possibly imagine. At minimum, those kinds of all-too-frequent lapses early in the year were alarming.

But that’s one game in particular, and the Falcons came out on top of the 49ers in part because of far better time management by Atlanta than San Francisco in that particular game, so it shouldn’t be used to damn Sutton and Harriger in any way. It’s difficult for me to say, based on the information available to me, how much of an impact they made in this regard last year.

Challenges

Knowing when to throw the challenge flag is a big deal for coaches, who may only do so a handful of times in the average season. Coming into 2019, Quinn had 17 challenges to his name and had won 10 of them, which is at least a pretty solid percentage. The addition of Sutton and perhaps Harriger was made partly to help better determine when to throw those flags.

It’s a small sample size, but the Falcons went 0 for 5 on challenges last year, so things didn’t quite go according to plan in this facet of game management. The state of NFL officiating and in particular pass interference calls last year was pretty brutal, so I think it’s fair to chalk up some of the goose egg to that. Still, that’s by far the worst track record Quinn’s had in any year as a head coach, beating out his 0 for 1 (yes, only one challenge) performance in 2018.


Clearly, the Falcons made a change for a reason here, and I hope like the other coaching staff shuffling we saw this offseason, it leads to good outcomes. My major quibbles with Quinn over the years have involved in-game awareness, timeout usage, and when he tends to go for it and be aggressive on 4th downs (typically only on very short yardage situations, otherwise he kicks field goals), and a lot of that is the kind of thing a quality game management coordinator can assist with.

Hopefully the experience Harriger gained a year ago splitting the role with Sutton will help him guide DQ and company to better decisions on gameday in 2020, because like the shakiness on offense and catastrophic first-half defensive woes in 2019, there is much to still be improved here.